What is a ruin, after all? It is a human construction abandoned to nature, and one of the allure of ruins in the city is that of wilderness: a place full of promise of the unknown with all its epiphanies and dangers.

Rebecca Solnit, discussing what attracts us to ruins, in A Field Guide To Getting Lost (pp. 88-89). I’ve always been fascinated the cracked sidewalk and the plants that grow in those cracks. Even there, we can see nature undoing what we have so recently done, despite our efforts to hold nature at bay. And this does hold a certain fascination.

My brother once gave me a framed copy of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias, which he’d typeset in one of the classes he was taking at library school. It still sits on my desk at home. This is certainly part of the fascination with ruins: the desert sands overtaking a powerful man’s great work, the thought of everyone’s eventual end.

I think there is something else that fascinates, though. Ruins capture, almost overwhelm, the imagination. I remember the feeling of being overwhelmed by an unknown past when I walked through the ruins of Ostia Antica or Chaco Canyon. Ruins are invitation to hear stories you don’t yet know. As I stepped through the hushed ruins, I could almost hear them whispering those stories to me: story upon story upon story, waiting to be discovered. You can make up your own stories up—as Rebecca Solnit did in the ruins of the hospital that inspired her meditation on ruins—or you can seek it out. I think both are valid.

Ruins are inviting and fascinating because they tap into the deep human need for stories. Our efforts at preservation are an attempt to preserve what Solnit calls grandmother sources: the stories that we don’t already know, that don’t fit into the grand narrative, that offer different and valuable perspectives, that ensure we learn from the mistakes of the past.

Perhaps these forgotten stories are a part of what Solnit means when she speaks of “the unknown with all its epiphanies and dangers.”

Grandmother sources

The histories I’ve written have often been hidden, lost, neglected, too broad or too amorphous to show up in others’ radar screens, histories that are not neat fields that belong to someone but the paths and waterways that meander through many fields and belong to no one. Art history in particular is often cast as an almost biblical lineage, a long line of begats in which painters descend primarily from painters. Just as the purely patrilineal Old Testament genealogies leave out the mothers and even the fathers of mothers, so these tidy stories leave out all the sources and inspirations that come from other media and other encounters, from poems, dreams, politics, doubts, a childhood experience, a sense of place, leave out the fact that history is made more of crossroads, branches and tangles than straight lines. These other sources I called the grandmothers.

Rebecca Solnit’s idea of grandmother sources (from A Field Guide To Getting Lost, pp.58-59) is a neat shorthand way of referring to a problem I have with many books. I find that non-fiction (and to an extent, fiction) books that I get enjoy most explore a topic, rather than building an argument. Strangely, this is true even when I agree with the argument that is being made. The inevitable exclusions and cherry picking that such an approach requires result in a work that lacks depth. On the other hand, openly and honestly exploring a topic—including stories and facts that might interfere with a simple, straightforward narrative—results in something I can immerse myself in and return to again and again. These are the kind of books that I learn something from every time I read them.

Solnit’s grandmother sources, and my preference for books that use them, strongly reminds me of Chimamanda Adichie’s plea to reject the single story in order to empower and humanize people that might not fit into the dominant narrative. It also brings to mind Matthew Chalmers’s idea of beautiful seams that allow many digital tools to flourish, rather than one dominant tool.

There is also something of Franklin’s gambit here: post-hoc rationalisation disguised as considered and informed decision making (though there are those who are honest enough to admit that most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive) . This results in a teleological history—the inevitable march of progress, manifest destiny—that erases stories from the past and obscures the many possibilities and opportunities of the present.


The human factor

But isn’t the human factor what connects us so deeply to our past? Will future generations care as much for chronologies and casualty statistics as they would for the personal accounts of individuals not so different from themselves? By excluding the human factor, aren’t we risking the kind of personal detachment from a history that may, heaven forbid, lead us one day to repeat it?

Max Brooks, Word War Z

Never the twain shall meet

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

This is attributed to Mark Twain. I’ve encountered it twice in as many days: once in an article on the recent spending cut in the UK by Johann Hari, then again while reading Search Patterns (p. 23).

According to Wikiquote, this quote doesn’t appear in any of Twain’s works. Apparently, it appeared in the 1960s and have been gaining currency since then. Although quotes usually attach themselves to famous people in order to survive, this one seemed weird to me. It doesn’t feel like Mark Twain at all. At best, it’s clever; at worst, bland. And Mark Twain is almost always several notches better than clever.

For the record, here’s something Mark Twain did say:

The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.

Now, that sounds like Mark Twain.

The flickering flame of civilization

The bronze age is a connected world. But it can’t sustain itself; it’s too rigid, elitist and top-heavy – and civilisation is a bit like a flickering flame. It almost goes out, but in certain places it keeps going and it will spread out again.

In the concept of civilisation, there is an inherent notion that things are always going to get better. I quite clearly break with that; I think of it being more like a heart monitor, zig-zagging up and down. The interesting thing about civilisation is our need to try to develop the perfect community for ourselves, and how we fail, but also how we come back to try again.

Richard Miles discusses the ebb and flow of human civilization. He’s presenting a six-part series called Ancient Worlds on BBC Two starting in November. My inner history and archeology geek is definitely excited about this one.

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